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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Proud Beggars

Albert Cossery

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To purchase Proud Beggars

Title: Proud Beggars
Author: Albert Cossery
Genre: Novel
Written: 1955 (Eng. 1981)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Proud Beggars - US
Proud Beggars - UK
Proud Beggars - Canada
Mendiants et orgueilleux - Canada
Proud Beggars - India
Mendiants et orgueilleux - France
Gohar der Bettler - Deutschland
Mendicanti e orgoliosi - Italia
Mendigos y orgullosos - España
  • French title: Mendiants et orgueilleux
  • Translated by Thomas W. Cushing
  • With Introduction by an Alyson Waters
  • Proud Beggars has been made it a film twice, as Beggars and Proud Ones: in 1972 (directed by Jacques Poitrenaud) and 1991 (directed by Asmaa El-Bakry)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : wonderfully languid tale of murder and choosing what kind of life to lead

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 12-1/2012 Thomas Meaney
FAZ . 9/7/1996 Werner Ross
The Nation . 11/6/2012 Mark Polizzotti

  From the Reviews:
  • "Was sie alle zeitweilig bewegt und belebt, ist ein Möchtegerntum, das sich die Möglichkeiten rauschhaft ausmalt, bis sie bei der Überschreitung der Grenze zur Wirklichkeit in Rauch aufgehen. (...) Kleinlaute Kapitulation ist immer wieder der Endpunkt der rauschhaften Illusionen. (...) Es ist halt ein ägyptischer Roman aus Paris." - Werner Ross, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Proud Beggars is, at least in its simplest outline, a tale of a murder and its consequences: Gohar, who: "had taught history and literature in the biggest university in the country" but has walked away from all that and lives without a care or possession to his name, throttles a young prostitute. It is a crime of opportunity and impulse: he happens to visit the local brothel when no one else is there; he is tempted by the golden bracelets the prostitute has on her arms (even as he realizes they are fake); he's a bit out of sorts because he has had to begin the day (far earlier than usual) without his usual drug-dose, and he can't find his dealer. The police inspector, Nour El Dine, who investigates the case finds himself confronted with a motiveless crime: nothing was stolen, the victim wasn't raped or beaten.
       It is, of course, not an act without consequence -- the girl is dead, and Nour El Dine investigates and interrogates, driving Gohar and some of his acquaintances to other (re)actions -- but the murder is little more than something that happened to set this in motion: Gohar isn't much troubled by any feelings of guilt, and Nour El Dine is largely going through the motions -- as Gohar suggests, "Not that the murder of a prostitute was an odious, inhuman act in their eyes, but it disturbed their tyrannical order", and it is order that must be re-established and held onto, rather than crime being punished or avenged.
       Gohar is the most extreme example of the 'proud beggars' in the book, once part of the system, but then fleeing it, driven away by the "anguish that oppressed him more and more each day". The powers that be strike him as entirely corrupt, and so he wants to remove himself as far as possible from any part of the system -- so, for example, barely even participating in the economy in any meaningful way: he has very few needs, and aside from his rent he doesn't appear to pay for practically anything, relying on the generosity of others (yet never actually begging, instead relying on rituals of give and take in which both parties willingly assume particular roles) and rarely engaging in any activity for which he receives any money. And he thinks the path he's taken is the only hope for salvation for the country as a whole, too:

Once we have a country where the population is composed entirely of beggars, then you'll see what will become of this arrogant domination. It will crumble into dust. Believe me.
       (Typically, too, he's immediately unhappy with the pomposity of his words after he utters them -- reminding him: "too much of his university pedantry". He doesn't want to lecture or convince; he lives by example, and that should -- and for the most part does -- suffice.)
       Some of Gohar's acquaintances are slightly more entrenched in the system, but Gohar's fundamental philosophy and world-view -- "All was simple and ludicrous" -- is certainly the dominant one. The inspector, meanwhile, has his own issues to deal with: a pederast (i.e. homosexual) he's being led on by a young man who only deigns to meet him in order to get back at his own father. Ostensibly a law-and-order man, Nour El Dine also finds himself constantly confronted with the absurdity of the world in both his investigation and his private life.
       Gohar does dream of escape of sorts -- the paradise he imagines has him tending to vast fields of hemp in Syria -- but he has already largely escaped, a bemused observer rather than participant in society. His rash murder threatens to pull him into the system again, but his happy-go-lucky attitude serves him well.
       Cossery's languid tale is almost cartoonish in its Orientalism, yet there's an underlying sharpness to his social and political critique too -- which certainly goes down much easier bedded as it is in this kind of tale. Cossery's world is one of decadence, from the corrupt authorities down to the six-year-old girl ("with features blurred by dirt") who lifts the hem of her dress to reveal: "her sex in a gesture of moving simplicity", and in these images and descriptions Cossery suggests society's corruption far more effectively than most any treatise might. Admittedly, too much of the poverty here is unrealistically painless, and Cossery's philosophical acceptance of the world's absurdity would probably be hard for many in the world he describes to swallow, but it's still a fascinating picture he offers.
       Much in Proud Beggars is also simply striking storytelling, from descriptions of Gohar's limbless neighbor and his wife (whom Gohar can overhear making love) to the stunning opening scene, in which Gohar wakes and finds himself almost literally at sea. Significantly, too, art is hardly seen as redemptive here: Gohar envies the illiterate, and what little writing is done hardly leads to good (indeed, it is the prostitute's request that Gohar pen a letter for her -- a service he regularly provides at the brothel -- that is a significant step to her own undoing).
       Oddly charming, often funny, and both poignant and very unsettling, Proud Beggars is another fascinating Cossery novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 December 2011

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Proud Beggars: Reviews: Beggars and Proud Ones - the movies: Albert Cossery: Other books by Albert Cossery under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-Egyptian writer Albert Cossery lived 1913 to 2008.

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© 2011-2013 the complete review

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